Friday, November 06, 2020

Welcome to the Zugsmithery: SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (1960)

If you don't think film critics can make mistakes, consider the terrible reviews given the sublime SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, a C-list 1960 madcap comedy about the effect a knockout blonde who also happens to be a super genius doctor of medicine,  psychology, and physics (plus ten other degrees) has on a small town college when she arrives from Vegas to assume the role of dean. Hired by "Thinko" the computer/robot who is "never wrong!", she's clearly qualified so why is she causing such a stir? Just because she happens to arrive in the body of "the Tallahassee Tassle Tosser," Mamie van Doren?. Often billed as being to Jayne Mansfield what Jayne Mansfield was to Marilyn Monroe, Mamie underplays with such calm authority that even those who sneer and deride her 'type' would be impressed if they could leave their male sexual panic at the door. Not only can she can carry a film, she can stay cool and grounded, and almost believable as a photographic memory and 13 doctorates-having genius. No doubt she is the right woman to lead this cocakamamie college into the "space age!" She 
can give you the page # of any given text. In short, Thinko is not wrong; she's qualified above and beyond the rest of them. The sparks fly because no one can handle the fact of her hotness. This inability is never depicted as anything but 'their' problem, and reflects perhaps the irrational hostility of critics (similar to the unearned scorn heaped on Myra Breckenridge.

And she's not the only asset: a stunning Tuesday Weld is the college's hitherto raining beauty queen. (she accuses Van Doren of "making every other woman in the world feel flat-chested"). Weld has been trying to get lumpen football star "Woo-Woo" (Norman Grabowsk--a kind of Rick Moranis crossed with a Sherman tank) to swing for first base rather than just srtriking out in a stuttering virgin panic. Trying to help Weld out, Dr. Mamie gives him some good counsel --just one of the surprising moments van Doren handles with a sensitive aplomb, yet hitting all the right comedic notes ("boys with nicknames are usually sensitive"). No wonder Woo-woo ends up falling for her instead of Weld, but it hardly matters much. There's too much else going on for anything to reach that kind of climax, as the film slowly builds to one of the stateroom scene-style 'everyone onstage' madhouses. Even Maila "Vampira" Nurmi is around, though stuck in the role of a sexually frustrated lab assistant, ever machinating to help undercut MVD's sexual status. Her presence alone lets you know you're in the right place.

Oh, oh that Mijano --in a nice color photo
(I couldn't find a good Sex Kittens still that does her justice)

For all Van Doren's range, the secondary romantic lead, Mijanou Bardot (Brigitte's sister!) basically steals the bulk of the sex appeal as a very low key, underplaying version of a sexually voracious Russ Meyer-style exchange student, fout to bed a cross-section of ze American male for her term paper ("what you call ze 'social sciences.") Her forthright availability is the stuff of semi-terrified fantasy. She ends up zeroing in on a "real live Chicago gangster" in the form of Allan Drake as "Legs" --whose grounded 'strictly business' semi-reticence is met with sultry /academic urgency ("Do you want to set science back thirty years!?") He and his pal are there to lean on this guy "Thinko" whose been gambling rather too successfully. Though far from the most interesting of the Mad style cacophony of crazy characters, Drake's rattled "Legs" becomes more interesting purely through his gradual reciprocation of Bardot's unswerving affection, and vice versa a--like some Anna Karina anti-heroine--she even joins the gangsters' side ("Boo-booom Boom! Ventilate him!" and "This dialogue, pure Roaring 20s, no?!")

"I"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet."
"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet" 

And that's good Legs comes around and conquers his sexual panic. Hey, you'd be surprised how many normally red-blooded American males can't handle a beautiful girl suddenly throwing herself at them like a freight train. A man might fantasize all through his pained adolescence about such moments, but if one actually comes--and Lacanians know this all too well--his reaction isn't aggressive cool, but panic; he starts to stutter, spills his drink, and before you know it, finds himself running away, covered in sweat, desperate to get home and begin his lifetime of self-reproach over this one blown opportunity. To go from tortured adolescent longing for this golden chance to tortured adult regret about blowing it is almost a rite of passage; hopefully one can glean the message: the unconscious half of yourself is a spiteful anima out to keep you for herself. 

This is the comedic gold mine understood only by a chosen few in the comedy business. College can be visualized as a zone where fantasy and desire reign free - written by and for people who have only been there in passing, but who looked at all the girls and thought 'man if I was in college I could score with all these chicks,' In this film they suddenly they have to put up or shut up.  The women--namely van Doren, Weld and Bardot--have all the brains and assertive libidos, and the men are reduced to terrified deer in the headlights. Such is the Russ Meyer-esque vein mined by Albert Confessions of an Opium Eater Zugsmith in the long-derided Sex Kittens Go to College. 

L-R: Tuesday, Mijanot, Mamie
I don't have all the answers; I have no idea why this awesome comedy gets such a bad critical rap, unless male critics are too threatened by the idea of a genius bombshell who's not evil, passive, materialistic, or moronic. As of this writing it has a 2.2 on imdb. and Lenny Maltin gives it a BOMB ("don't say you weren't warned!"); Glenn Erikson says "Compared to Sex Kittens, Otto Preminger's Skiddoo is a profound statement on the human condition." An uncredited imdb writer calls it "one of the most legendarily worst films ever produced." But I say, if you've been to college and like to get wasted and love the films of Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, and Roger Corman, and you used to read Mad and Cracked as a kid, then at least consider checking out a film where all those things are rounded out to the uncommon denominator. I think a lot of these low budget zany comedies get a bad rap, especially if they don't have big recognizable directors (like Frank Tashlin or George Axelrod) so that critics can guess how they're supposed to respond. This isn't a guffaw style comedy, but how often did we laugh reading Mad as kids? Half the time we didn't even get the jokes. There were satires of films far too dry and adult for our interest, like The Sandpiper and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.  In that spirit, let Albert Zugsmith be your Alfred E. Newman. 

The Zug was strange figure who could go from producing films like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, and Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, to directing unclassifiable strangeness like Confessions of an Opium Eater, The Beat Generation, and Sex Kittens Go to College. He also produced Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill!  If you don't see that list is all connected, then you need to learn so very much about the spirit of revolutionary cinematic anarchy in the service of sexual stimulation. (Behind me right as I wrote that phrase a Quaker Oats commercial said "Where new normals are created.") That's the beauty of the Zugsmith touch. Watching Vincent Price sailing madly down the sewer towards Frisco Bay oblivion in Opium Eater for example, leaves us more questions than answers: is it a horror film? A white slavery expose? A surreal odyssey worthy of Bunuel? 

It is all that and more, for you have entered the Zugsmithery. 

The simple fact is, there are so many things to zero in on here in the Zugsmithery that if one element annoys you, there are ten more to delight or flabbergast. For me the most glaring and annoying element in Sex Kittens is Martin Milner (the supposedly hip jazz guitarist who had to have weed planted on him in Sweet Smell of Success) as the college's PR man / sexist hysteric. Talking fast in a kind of high-voiced style, sort of imitating Cary Grant at his most flummoxed in Arsenic and Old Lace, Milner tries to steal scene he's in, as if he's feeling the need to give the film a square 'white fall guy' center to ground the antics, i.e. he's the Tony Randall or Tom Ewell, there to link the film to every other banal "sex" comedy flatlining on big screens around America at the end of the 1950. Rather than letting the women own their scenes, Milner lets a kind desperate flop sweat swell his own lines until they rain all over their lines. He might come out a few yards ahead of Eliot Reid's smarmy detective in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) as far as worst male counterpart to a busty 50s-era comedic titan, but it's mighty close. 

There's one other caveat: I also don't like the cop-out patriarchy-triumphant ending (SPOILER ALERT!), when Mamie hangs up her shingle and goes back to Vegas to continue her tassle-tossing, so that Milner can romance her without feeling threatened. When she says, after giving up on her academic career, "for the first time I feel like I'm really using my brain" one wants to track down writer Robert Hill and beat him senseless with a rock-filled bra. (I feel the same way at the end of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls when smarmy, worthless David Gurian is accepted back into the fold and the murdered lesbians are blamed for their own deaths.) If there's one thing I loathe in these 50s-60s big screen sex comedies it's these young men with clean cut hair and a pipe and an unearned lordly air, as if they believe the Madison Avenue plastic fantastic wave that tells them they--by virtue of their educated SWM status-- have the right to re-enforce patriarchal homogenization when it begins to weaken. Sure, not all these guys are insufferable but the ones that are, like Milner and Reid, becomes more insufferable with every passing day of my work's sensitivity training. Ugh! (Of you can't get enough of my ravings on the topic, check out: CinemArchetype 13: The Skeevy Boyfriend. and Vanishing Caloric Density: The Queen of Outer Space.

 Luckily, there's a kind of masochistic 'turn the audience into feminists' critique going on here, as in Blonde Venus we may not like that he wins in the end, but we're clearly meant to root against the squirmy male who uses the conservative values of the reigning social order to help put a woman in her place for the crime of outshining him in every department. If we come away pissed off, at least we can credit the film for stealthily agreeing with us. We can't help but cheer when she dumps a conga on his head then pours a pitcher of water through it onto his head. Even if she apologizes later, and asks "do you find me... desirable?" so that we roll our eyes and snort derisively, Zugsmith gave us our moment. And we'll never forget it. 

To make certain we know where Zugsmith's sympathies lie, balancing out Milner's forced hysteria there's wondrously wry turns by Jackie Coogan, 'borrowing' W.C. Field's chicane drawl wholesale (even making a Professor Quail-style landing) as the college's key financial supporter, Admiral "Wildcat" McPherson; and John Carradine--proving he isn't limited to shady butlers and secondary Draculas--as a debauched science professor.  We knew Coogan had the comedic goods cuzza Fester, but it turns out Carradine is adept as hell at deadpan Mad Magazine-style comedy, as one of Mamie's firm supporters. Like everyone else except Milner and Nurmi, he's unthreatened by her mix of sex appeal and brains, calling her "a positive vision" while helping her into his faculty-packed jalopy (her chimp sidekick sneaks into the rumble seat) for a night of buzzed carousing (or a "simple homespun country fun"). Destination: "the Passion Pit," the college's local tavern.  To overcome any further doubts as to her qualifications as either genius, Vegas showman or star stripper, Van Doren hypnotizes the gathered faculty and Pit patrons to join her in a crazy rhumba (Conway Twitty watches, and then sings). As she puts it, "this is war and I'm out to wake up the troops!"

Thankfully, no amount of stage show antics can dampen the benevolent and respectful ardor of these older men, who are--essentially--too debauched to be troublesome (the greatest libertines never mash or paw; they won't say no if you make the first move, but otherwise lean in only to spook away the unwanted johnnies). Ah, the vantage point of age and experience! 

Cameo parts and great lines float around ("I'm a selectman of the church!" rants the cop who arrests the admiral when his morality is on the ropes); Charlie Chaplin Jr. is a bewildered fire chief; the imposing and magnificently bullhorn-voiced Babe London arrives in town representing "the Paddy Pad Brassier for the larger figures gal"  - At the end when heading off once more into the great beyond, London drops the ultimate microphone: "You people don't deserve Paddy Pads! I'm taking my brassieres to Europe where they'll be appreciated!"

And over all, it's one of those "What, me worry?" fantasies where all the women are stacked and leggy, but smart and aggressive, and the men more or less idiots. But when you have Coogan and Carradine dancing at a bar, how bad can things get, no matter how much Milner dashes around like some kind of universal chaperone (telling Jayne "You are a bit much for a growing boy to face at nine-AM in the morning.") or the flash-frozen "Woo Woo" mopes and Moranis-izes? Sure, the ending is total chaos as all the disparate parts come together in a big science lab/classroom climax (with the gangsters and Thinko finally squaring off) but at least half the gags hit home and if you don't really laugh, well, one of the beautiful gals is usually onscreen to rest your eyes on while you wait for the next zany character to come tumbling into the scene. For all its faults, I think I like it better, as a whole, than either Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which has an icky homophobic  subtext) or The Girl Can't Help It (which has an icky Tom Ewell smarm). Sure it's not as good as Lord, Love a Duck but what is? Even that's not perfect, though it sure is Milner-less.

The question is, does Sex Kittens link up with Opium to delineate and auteur style for the Zugsmith? Maybe not, but it does indicate a termite interest in veering from audience expectation and letting the sewer carry us where it may, no matter how far afield from the norm. If Vincent Price were to show up, waving an opium pipe as he sails past on a Chinese character floatation device, on his way to Dr. Goldfoot-fame, we might well be convinced. Maybe you you can't pin high hopes on it, maybe it's not any better than 1962's Invasion of the Star Creatures but if you can tolerate that (and I can) you should know there's plenty of the old galaka-zoom and maybe even some ring-a-ding dinkiness to be found at the Zugsmithery. Best of all, there's full-bodied and nuanced performances from Bardot (casually carnal), Van Doren (sensitive and balanced - she talks, not shouts, further stranding  Milner in the ham flats) and Weld (less to do than in Duck but still ravishing with her spot-on deadpan comic/sexy-fusion alchemical acumen). The three girls, especially Van Doren and Weld (they remained fast friends), project a kind sisterly, lordly benevolence, riding herd over the male students like a college sex-com Red River. Even with the cop-out coda, this baby is going places, maybe even all of them at once. Follow the lead of professor John Carradine and Jackie Coogan instead of the dopey Milner. A girl with youth, brains, education and hot blondeness is not a threat, a goal, or an object, but a great drinking partner. Let her prove it, and hang on tight. 

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